OSCARS ALERT: I will be live-blogging (more like live-snarking) the Academy Awards tonight. Come for the cynicism. Stay for the subversion. Add your comment. Warning: Not for the easily offended or shocked.

The people who put on the Academy Awards are in a flopsweat panic as the hours tick away before this year’s big broadcast, which is having its major rehearsal and technical run-through today. For weeks now, they’ve been begging me and the other journalists who cover the Oscars not to trash the planning and performances for this year’s telecast like we have in years past. Because their frustration and fear is that, if Sunday’s top-to-bottom reworked show can’t bring back viewers after 2008′s sunk to its lowest ratings ever, then nothing will. And the worst part is that not even Hollywood wants to participate in the Oscars anymore.

I can report that this year’s producers are privately complaining that the biggest movie stars in the world like Jack Nicholson, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, and Kate Winslet gave them reasons galore — some serious, some trivial – for why they didn’t want to present awards, once considered a huge honor. (For instance, Kidman said she couldn’t appear onstage without the “right” hairdresser. George Clooney wouldn’t reschedule his current visit to Darfur refugee camps in Africa. And Winslet, the Best Actress shoo-in, claimed she was too “nervous” to take it on.) One of the few bigtime actresses who didn’t balk was Reese Witherspoon. These behind-the-scenes embarrassments are one reason why the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences took the unprecedented step this year of failing to make public the list of Oscar presenters. There’s even talk now of bringing back those official $100,000+ Oscar baskets of expensive freebies that used to be given to the show’s presenters and performers (before Uncle Sam decided to tax the giveaways) as a way to bribe Hollywood into lending its star power.

And the lack of major celebrities is one reason why the producers may finally be able to keep the show’s running time to their goal of 3 hours and 15 minutes instead of the usual dragfest that has driven away TV audiences with every passing year. But, in the process, the producers lost Peter Gabriel who refused to sing his Best Original Song from Wall-E, “Down To Earth”, in what he claimed was the insulting allotted time of only 65 seconds for each of the 3 tunes in a medley. The producers also have dissed last year’s actor winners by deciding that France’s Marion Cotillard (Best Actress for La Vie En Rose) and Spain’s Javier Bardem (Best Supporting Actor for No Country For Old Men), Scotland’s Tilda Swinton (Best Supporting Actress for Michael Clayton) and even England’s Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor for There Will Be Blood) weren’t big enough names to carry on the time-honored tradition of announcing this year’s winners by themselves. So, I’ve learned, the unusual step will be taken to bring onstage from a riser 5-person groups of other Best Actor or Best Supporting Actress winners from past eras in order to add more glitz and glamor to the presentations. (Not to mention that Australia’s Heath Ledger won’t be picking up his Best Supporting Actor award this year.) Oh, but don’t worry: last year’s winners will still get to open the envelope and announce who won.

So much for this year’s Academy Awards shaping up as the most international ever: AMPAS is truly concerned that Americans don’t care about Bollywood’s Slumdog Millionaire, the shoo-in for Best Picture, its director Danny Boyle for Best Director and other 2009 honors. Even the choice of host this year, Australia’s Hugh Jackman, was intended to pump up the overseas interest in the Oscars. But on Friday, people close to the X-Men and upcoming Wolverine star still felt the need to release a viral video on YouTube of a very buff Jackman, his biceps bulging, making fun of the jokes from previous Oscar hosts as he rehearsed a song-and-dance number with a Top Hat and cane. (Oh, that’ll bring the under-24 demo back in front of their TVs.)

And the fact that so many Oscar categories have been locked in since December, and therefore marquee nominees like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie locked out for months, have only added to the anxiety among organizers. They even tried, and failed, to convince celebrity publicists to bring clients around to a side entrance at the Kodak Theatre instead of onto the Red Carpet Sunday in order to keep secret what the stars would be wearing so it could be a surprise for the telecast. Like, duh, the arrivals’ fashion show (this year with commentary by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn) are considered by many to be the broadcast’s best part.

One new idea thought up by the producers that will be seen Sunday? Trophy boys. The result is that very handsome young men will now join very beautiful young women on stage carrying out the Oscar statuettes. If that’s not an acknowledgement that viewership for the Academy Awards these days is limited to only females and gays, I don’t know what is.

Meanwhile, a group of online bloggers has led an audience boycott of the Oscars among the predominantly male fans of The Dark Knight because of the Academy voters’ snub of the $1 billion-in-worldwide-grosses comic book caper for a Best Picture nomination and its Chris Nolan for Best Director. And that’s yet another problem that hurts viewership: this year, too, the most popular movies aren’t in contention for the major category Academy Awards. That drives away younger viewers. So it’s little wonder that ABC in this economic freefall scrambled to drop prices for 30-second ads and replace two of the key sponsors for its Sunday broadcast, General Motors and L’Oreal. Not even the prospect of 30+ million U.S. viewers could lure advertisers who’ve cut their TV budgets to the bone. Prices for Oscars spots averaged $1.7 million last year, but now are going for as cheap as $1.4 million. The result is that, in a departure from tradition, parent company Walt Disney had to let its rival movie studios buy time on the telecast.

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